RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate voted unanimously Monday to pass the Joint Commission on Health Care bill SB 726, which will let Virginia doctors recommend the use of cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil for the treatment of any diagnosed condition or disease.
This comes on the heels of Friday’s unanimous passing of the companion bill, HB 1251, in the Virginia House of Delegates.
“I finally decided that I needed to advocate for the physicians being the decision makers,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, the chief patron of the Senate bill. “We, physicians, are the ones that follow the literature and know which treatments are best for different conditions. The literature on medical cannabis is going to be evolving rapidly now, and because of this, it is not a decision that should be in the hands of the legislature. Instead, it should be with physicians.”
Regular Virginians suffering from a variety of conditions — including cancer, Crohn’s disease and PTSD — have lobbied passionately for this reform.
“Honestly, until this week, I’ve always thought of it helping my patients that have breast cancer, especially the young ones that have children and have so many things to get done, but feel so terrible as they go through chemotherapy,” said Sen. Dunnavant, a doctor. “After this week, I won’t be able to forget Tamra Netzel, the patient and my constituent with multiple sclerosis that testified on behalf of this bill in committee. My niece also has MS and having the opportunity to help others in similar situations means a lot to me.”
‘Let Doctors Decide’
The chief patron of the House bill is Delegate Benjamin L. Cline. Staunton’s Nikki Narduzzi, patient coalition director at Cannabis Commonwealth and an advocate for medical marijuana legalization in Virginia, approached Cline about the bill.
“What we really needed was a House patron that could get the bill out of the Criminal Law Subcommittee and carry it across the finish line,” says Narduzzi. Cline held a position on the Joint Commission on Health Care and the Criminal Law Subcommittee.
“He voted in favor of our previous bills, had shown great compassion and respect for patients who shared their stories and was well-known for being respected by his Republican colleagues even though he was also known to speak up on positions that weren’t always viewed favorably by his own party members,” says Narduzzi. “He was the perfect advocate to have on our side.”
“I met with Delegate Cline mid-December at the Starbucks in Staunton to present him with the hard ask … ‘Would he patron a Let Doctors Decide bill that would allow all patients to access the same medical marijuana products that were available to epilepsy patients?’ He was happy to agree and ‘my fight’ instantly got easier. I could never put into words just how meaningful his patronage and support was, especially at a time when I had very little (physically and emotionally) to give. I had burned my patient advocacy candle at both ends and was just barely hanging in there,” says Narduzzi.
“CBD/THC-A oil has been proven to effectively and safely help patients address symptoms of intractable epilepsy and manage pain,” said Delegate Cline. “By expanding the ability to recommend CBD/THC-A oil, we are giving doctors the freedom to make a recommendation based on the most up to date research and data, just as they do for any other medication they prescribe.”
Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML and a two-time cancer survivor herself, believes these bills will give countless suffering Virginians a chance to safely heal — right here in their home Commonwealth.
“All Virginians deserve access to safe, regulated medical cannabis,” said Pedini. “These bills will ensure that Virginians have the ability to stay here at home with their families, with their support networks and not be forced to move to another state in the middle of a healthcare crisis to seek medical cannabis therapies.”
As the Commonwealth struggles with a worsening opioid crisis, this legislation offers a glimmer of hope.
“Medical cannabis laws have demonstrated significant impact on the opiate crisis,” said Pedini. “States with such laws see on average a 25% reduction in opioid fatalities. We are losing three Virginians every day to opioid overdose. It’s time to give doctors in the Commonwealth the ability to utilize this powerful tool in mitigating addiction and overdose.”
Since the bills are identical, from here the steps are largely procedural: the bills will “crossover” to the opposite house for a vote, before heading to Governor Northam’s desk for signature.
Gov. Ralph Northam, also a doctor, is already on record in support of Let Doctors Decide medical marijuana laws in the Commonwealth. Passage of this historic legislation would make Virginia the first state with a hyper-restrictive program to adopt such a broad expansion.
What happens next
In 2017, Virginia approved a regulatory program for the in-state production of medical cannabis oil by five providers, one per Health Service Area, which will grow, extract, dispense and deliver the medical cannabis oils. These licensed providers, called “pharmaceutical processors” in the code, are vertically-integrated, meaning everything from growth through dispensation is done on one site by one provider.
Once operational, patients will register with the program and then be able to fill their recommendation at one of five licensed facilities in Virginia. Doctors will be required to obtain Continuing Medical Education credits in medical cannabis in order to recommend medical cannabis to their patients. The annual registration fee for patients and physicians will be $50.
After today’s win, Narduzzi is turning her attention away from policy reform to helping patients navigate the system and healthcare provider outreach services.
“Two very important components of implementing a successful medical cannabis program going forward,” says Narduzzi.